As Cable News Network and Fox News Channel reported the latest headlines from the war in Iraq last Sunday, MSNBC reporter Kerry Sanders was playing phone operator.
Sanders handed his satellite phone to an injured soldier, allowing him to call his mother back home. MSNBC later did a follow-up interview with the G.I.'s mother, labeling it an "MSNBC exclusive."
When the all-news networks covered the early days of other major breaking news stories, such as the breakup of the Space Shuttle Columbia, the coverage was often similar. But after taking several months to prepare strategies for covering Operation Iraqi Freedom, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC have each carved out a unique approach to covering the war.
MSNBC — which reports many personal stories of soldiers and their families, in addition to dispatches from Iraq from reporters like Peter Arnett and David Bloom — has become the network that can make viewers cry. CNN, with 18 correspondents embedded with coalition forces, has been the network that can guarantee viewers that they'll get a quick fix on the latest action on the front lines.
And Fox News, which has left its primetime lineup of debate-and-opinion shows such as The O'Reilly Factor
and Hannity & Colmes
in place since the war began, has become the network where viewers can vent.
While MSNBC runs headlines every 15 minutes and features frequent updates from Arnett — the only Western TV journalist remaining in Baghdad — the network has tried to differentiate its coverage with a more personal approach.
One of its strategies was to erect an "America's Bravest" wall in its Secaucus, N.J., studio, where it hangs photos of dozens of American soldiers. Anchors give viewers a quick story about each soldier when they receive a new photo from a family member.
"We want to give you that personal sense, and we also want to do it in a way that's not insulting to anybody's intelligence," said MSNBC vice president of live news programming Mark Effron.
When there's breaking news, such as bombs dropping on Baghdad, MSNBC and the other networks quickly cut to fixed camera positions in the Iraqi capital in hopes of catching the explosions. But when there have been lulls in the news, MSNBC has been repeating its personal story segments.
"Every day is different. There has been some repetition, because if it's a great piece, you want to use it," Effron said.
NBC News reporters have also been the subjects of some of those segments. Brian Williams last week was traveling via helicopter with an NBC analyst, retired U.S. Army Gen. Wayne Dowling, when an Iraqi man fired a rocket-propelled-grenade at another helicopter near theirs.
A harder edge
The helicopters were forced to land, and an Army tank division protected Williams and Dowling from Iraqi soldiers while they waited out a sandstorm that lasted for two days.
CNN cancelled its tabloid-style program Connie Chung Tonight
last week, which was pulled from the schedule when the war broke out. The move, which came a few weeks after CNN cancelled its Talk Back Live
afternoon program, suggests that new CNN News Group president Jim Walton is fully intent upon returning the channel to a hard-news focus.
CNN anchors Aaron Brown and Wolf Blitzer have been running the network's primetime coverage, with the former reporting from New York and the latter from Kuwait.
With more than 200 staffers in the Iraq region — including 18 correspondents embedded with the troops — CNN officials boast that they have more personnel in the region than any other news network. "We have more places to go for live information on the status of the war," spokesman Matt Furman said.
CNN has also been televising frequent one-minute "War Recap" updates throughout the day, which feature a breakdown of each day's news from Iraq.
Fox's strategy of wrapping itself in the American flag has paid off in the ratings, as it leads CNN and MSNBC in the battle for Nielsen Media Research homes.
In addition to running an American flag graphic in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, Fox News programming features military march music in the background. The network's anchors and reporters also consistently speak in the first person when they're referring to coalition forces in Iraq.
For example, Fox And Friends
host Brian Kilmeade said Friday morning, "There wouldn't be one building standing [in Baghdad] if we weren't looking out for civilians."
"Fox News certainly has a fan base of conservative folks, and it's waving the flag at every opportunity," said consultant John Hillis of Equinox Media, a veteran not only of CNN, but the founding president of NewsChannel 8 in Washington, D.C. "The fan base may tend to stick longer. There may be some validity in saying that Fox is the patriotic choice, so people are responding patriotically, if you will."
Compared to MSNBC and CNN, which have been using videophones and satellite uplinks to transmit video from its embedded troops, Fox News appeared to carry the least amount of video from embedded reporters last week.
Most of the reports filed from Fox's star embedded reporter Rick Leventhal came in the form of a satellite phone call from him, accompanied by a still photo of the reporter.
Leventhal, traveling with the 1st Marine Division, explained during a report Thursday night that he's had a power problem with his videophone.
The good news for Fox is that embedded reporter Geraldo Rivera, who didn't appear for much of last week, expects to see a lot of action traveling with the Army's 101st Airborne Division, which landed in Northern Iraq on Thursday.
Rivera, reporting via videophone, said on TV Friday morning he expected the 101st to see a lot action within the next 36 hours.
Linda Moss contributed to this story.